VOD film review: The Immortal Story
James R | On 05, Dec 2020
Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Orson Welles, Jeanne Moreau
Watch The Immortal Story online in the UK: MUBI UK
A wealthy man passes away on his remote estate, alone. He drops an object and it rolls to the floor. This isn’t Citizen Kane, but The Immortal Story, Orson Welles’ 1968 film that’s far less seen. Filmed for French TV and lasting barely an hour, it’s a world away from his 1941 debut, but the director’s same preoccupations with storytelling are as vivid and alive as ever.
Welles plays Mr Clay, a once-great merchant who is kept company by his book-keeper, Levinsky (Roger Coggio). When he passes the time by telling Levinsky of an old man who hires a young, pool sailor to sleep with his wife for five guineas, Levinsky replies by informing him that the tale is an old sailor’s urban legend. Mr Clay responds by ordering Levinsky to help him make the exact same thing happen in real life.
And so we see Levinsky manage to hire Virginie (a magnetic Jeanne Moreau) to play Clay’s wife, while Paul (Norman Eshley), a young sailor, gamely steps up to woo her, unaware that she’s just pretending to be the old man’s partner. It’s a deliciously layered fairy tale of identity, reality and fiction, and that surprising complexity gives a weight to the slight feature that’s backed up by its absorbing atmosphere.
The movie is Welles’ first work in colour, and he uses the film’s palette with the kind of experimental confidence that defined all of work, even when he was scrabbling around in Europe to make films after being exiled from Hollywood. It’s difficult not to see Mr Clay as a stand-in for Welles himself, fading away on the sidelines while still determined to retain some control over the world by forcing it to comply with a story. Welles whips up a narrative (based on Isak Dinesen’s story) that then defines the people involved and literally gives them a role to play.
The result is a meditation on stories and the people telling them, mythology and memory and dreams versus reality. It’s a film that’s as romantic as it is cynical, tied together by the dreamy music of Erik Satie. At its heart is Welles’ former giant, whose connections to Virginie bring an intriguing element of regret to the chamber piece, one in which people use stories to try and control others or to achieve their own end goals. But, like Citizen Kane, Welles’ circular narrative reminds us that stories have power – but all stories must come to an end.
The Immortal Story is now available on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription.